We ask how the Kushikatsu Tanaka izakaya chain is faring in the midst of a pandemic.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has been urging residents to exercise self-restraint in going to karaoke parlors, concerts, or bars in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Izakaya (Japanese-style pub) chain Kushikatsu Tanaka has heeded those words carefully, and some branch manager have decided to transform their locations into mainly take-out bento boxed lunch shops.

▼ The exterior of a Tokyo Kushikatsu Tanaka branch. The chain began in Osaka and specializes in kushikatsu, deep-fried skewers of meat or vegetables.

Beginning on April 1, Kushikatsu Tanaka locations across the country changed their system of operations to strengthen the services of take-out orders and deliveries. From the hours of 11:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. they now operate as take-out only businesses while continuing to be open until later in the night for anyone who wishes to eat and drink on site. Our reporter stopped by the Higashi-Nihonbashi branch in Tokyo on April 2, which was also the day that the chain began offering bento versions of its dishes at certain locations.

Since izakaya are typically open and bustling at night, this one’s appearance in the daytime gave the impression that it was still prepping for the evening hours to come. Our reporter felt hesitant to approach the doors, even though they were open and inviting. As he drew closer, he noticed a newly posted sign on the window that read “Tanaka’s bento!!” in beautiful writing, advertising a new bento offering.

Inside the store, branch manager Mr. Kato was busy preparing the bento alone. “I’m still getting things ready,” he offered with a bright smile. It was clear that he was also still getting used to the ever-changing situation and the new bento model of business.

Our reporter then asked him to shed details on how the business switched to more of a take-out model and came to sell bento.

Mr. Kato: “Because of the situation very few people were coming into the store, so I said we should focus on take-out and bento.”

SoraNews24: “Were you the first one to propose this idea?”

Mr. Kato: “No, there were several of us [managers] who raised the idea. There were already a few locations that sold bento in the first place, and we thought that we should focus our energies on that model at the moment.”

SoraNews24: “By the way, about how many customers are coming to the store now to eat and drink?”

Mr. Kato: “Almost none. Yesterday there were zero. There are definitely more who buy kushikatsu to go.”

That’s a little glimpse of what the restaurant’s status is like at this time. While the izakaya is still open at night with a limited menu, it’s essentially operating as a take-out bento store now. The aforementioned Kushikatsu Tanaka bento for 800 yen (US$7.38) and karaage (fried chicken) bento for 550 yen are the two special bento offerings.

We certainly couldn’t leave the shop empty-handed after speaking with Mr. Kato, so we bought one of each to bring home. The “Kushikatsu Tanaka bento” included six skewers of deep-fried cuts of beef, pork, shrimp, quail eggs, and lotus root along with sides of macaroni salad, pickled ginger, and rice. There was plenty of sauce on the side, and while we didn’t eat it inside the store as usual, it was the same familiar taste we’d enjoyed n previous visits to the chain.

Similarly, the karaage bento featured six generous pieces of fried chicken along with macaroni salad, pickled ginger, and rice. The crispy meat also hid a deliciously spicy flavor upon biting into it.

While take-out kushikatsu is available at all Kushikatsu Tanaka locations nationwide, the bento are only offered at select stores. Uber Eats also provides delivery services in certain prefectures.

Postscript: At 6 p.m. on the very day that our reporter visited the Higashi-Nihonbashi branch, Kushikatsu Tanaka Holdings Co. announced that in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, all locations of the izakaya would be temporarily closed from April 4-12. While that undoubtedly comes as unfortunate news to the branch managers such as Mr. Kato who were just getting the hang of things, we hope that they are able to keep a positive attitude through the next week. We will make a point to buy more bento when the chain resumes business again. 

Related: Kushikatsu Tanaka take-out/delivery
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